To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come? — William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Dreams are the stuff of our own inner cinema. There we are free to deconstruct and reconstruct the stories of our lives, with an inner stream of consciousness that owes less to Faulknerian literary inclinations and more to our biggest waking influence: television and movies. In our dreams we are producers and directors, and sometimes the stars, of a never-ending cinematic story of, if not our lives, the way we subconsciously wish they would be or never could be. In our dreams, others may die, but we never do, always waking up at the moment of impact of the speeding train, the crush of the bullet against our skulls, the endless falling from the precipitous cliff into the somnambular abyss.
Christopher Nolan’s new film Inception plays with the darkness of our inner selves, the way his previous films like Memento and The Dark Knight have done, but in a more subversive way because the stuff dreams are made of is not even imbued with a hint of salvation, unless it comes in the form of delusion that may or may not be implanted by ourselves or others.
Throughout the history of cinema, we have seen various uses of the “dream” as being an integral part of the sinews and organs of the body film, a manifest destiny if you will of where films could take us if we were only brave enough to lay bare the inner workings of our minds. Orson Welles once said that film is a ribbon of dreams, and that could be found in his best cinematic work: Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and the hallucinogenic and darkly frightening Touch of Evil. Still in and all, this dark and twisted world could well spring from nightmares as much as from dreaming.
Inception challenges the viewer in ways that are daring, intelligent, and slightly dangerous. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, a man who has the ability to steal or “extract” information, sometimes priceless, from people’s minds during sleep. This is something that makes him like a dream thief, but also someone who uses this ability to build a clientele and a seemingly professional resume for other customers who will want his services.
When working with his team, which includes Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Nash (Lukas Hass), something goes wrong as they try to extract information from the powerful Japanese businessman Saito (Ken Watanabe) and the team fails. This results in the tables turning for Cobb, as the organization that had paid him now is hunting him.
Saito offers Cobb a way out, to work for him on an extremely important project — to enact an “inception,” placing an idea in the mind of his top competitor Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy) to get him to break up his dying father’s (Pete Postlethwaite) company that has a monopoly that is squeezing Saito out of the market. While Arthur doesn’t think it can be done (since they have previously only done an “extraction” of information), Cobb agrees to take on the job of inception because he says, “I’ve done it before.”
The secret of how and why Cobb knows inception will work is eventually revealed, but it is so crucial to the plot that I will not spoil it here; however, this knowledge haunts Cobb as does the image of his dead wife Mal (a powerful performance by Marion Cotillard). For those of you who might say this sounds familiar, you’d be right. DiCaprio’s character Teddy Daniels was haunted by dead wife Dolores (Michelle Williams) in last year’s Shutter Island. The similarities are a bit peculiar, but they do diverge enough not to make it a distraction to the viewer.
The most intriguing thing about Inception is the way Nolan has depicted the dream world that he has created. Within this dreamscape there are multiple levels, dreams within dreams, and like a play within a play, they open new dramatic doors and the possibilities become endless. Depending on who is dreaming, we can sink down two, three, or even four levels into a maddening psychological miasma where drowning is always an option.
On the first level of dreaming, a person can be killed and thus forced to end the dream, waking him or her up. As the stakes get higher in the game Cobb plays with Fischer (including taking powerful narcotics to keep the dreamers asleep), the easy out of killing someone is lost. A person who “dies” in a dream falls into a deeper chasm or “limbo” from which it can take a long time (decades perhaps) to escape, reminding one of what Carson McCullers called “the yearless region of dreams.”
There are many elements involved in getting the idea to break up the company into Fischer’s mind. Once the idea is successfully implanted, he will wake up without realizing what has happened but thinking the concept is an awareness of his own making. While all of this is very complicated, Nolan has handled the multiple levels in a dynamic and powerfully visual way that keeps the audience engaged and cognizant of each level as the team experiences various disruptions all at the same time.
For example, on the second level of the dreamworld the team is in a van falling into the river from a bridge. While ordinarily this would take seconds to happen, the van is suspended in slow motion as the events occur in the other levels where time takes longer to play out. Nolan cuts back and forth to keep establishing the time sequence, and it all works rather well and keeps the audience truly involved and thinking throughout.
Since there is a danger of revealing too much here that would spoil the film for the reader, I can only say that in the end we are left with as many questions as answers. The story demands multiple viewings, and I look forward to watching the DVD when I will be able to stop and play back scenes that I have questions about.
There is a good deal of psychological stuff going on, with great dramatic moments and lots of action including fights, shoot outs, and explosions to keep all The Dark Knight fans happy. There are certainly many times when the fate of the characters is in question, and the fact that Nolan has jammed so much into the film and yet gets the audience to care on an extremely emotional level about these characters is testimony to his craft as a filmmaker.
More importantly, the viewer will keep questioning what has happened on the many levels, waiting to confirm that the dreaming is actually over and reality has come back into play. Nolan challenges our perceptions all the way, and even in the last moment of the final scene, you will jump in your seat as your brain squirms with what you see in the last seconds, a titillating visual that makes you yearn for the rewind button.
Inception is a different kind of movie experience, involving the audience as much as a foreign film that forces the brain to work because subtitles have to be read. In essence, the viewer becomes engaged in the film and pulled into a vortex of dreams within dreams, worlds that are real as the dream thief and his team can make them. Ultimately the film succeeds because we walk away from it thinking about our own dreams and real lives, wondering how we can survive in the day-to-day real world without dipping into dreams to find the answers, but then we will question whether dreams are a respite from it all or merely another pathway that leads us to a corridor with too many doors and not enough time to try to open them all.